Easy Street: The Bud Shuster Interchange
By Eric Pianin and Charles R. Babcock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 5, 1998
They're standing 15 deep at the door to a party room at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, waiting to celebrate Bud Shuster's 66th birthday. A birthday party for a powerful congressional committee chairman always draws a crowd, even at $1,000 a plate. But with a six-year, $218 billion highway reauthorization bill on the table, nobody wants the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to be lonely on this late January night.
And so they have come, these men and women, most of whom are lobbyists for the transportation industry. The turnout ranges from planes to trains to automobiles, from asphalt and concrete to billboards to roadway reflectors: Union Pacific, American Airlines, 3M, the Associated General Contractors, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, and so on. As the doors open, the party room quickly fills with cocktail chatter and the clink of ice in tumblers.
Except the guest of honor is nowhere to be seen. Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican halfway through his 13th term, is somewhat shy. Working a room is not his favorite pastime. In his stead, a woman named Ann Eppard is standing by the door in a black cocktail dress, greeting the guests she has invited.
Like just about everyone else in the room, Eppard is a transportation lobbyist. Like no one else, she can draw on a relationship with the chairman that goes back 25 years. Before November 1994, Eppard was Shuster's most trusted aide, his $100,000-a-year chief of staff. She was his political adviser, traveling companion, principal fund-raiser and friend. She drove him to work in the morning. And then shortly before the Republican takeover of Congress, she left his staff to open her own lobbying firm.
She and Shuster, however, remain close. They still dine together frequently. They still travel together frequently. She still exercises influence over the operation of his congressional office.
And she is still his principal fund-raiser.
Which is why she is spending the drinks-and-hors-d'oeuvres portion of this evening greeting the guests. Shuster arrives and starts shaking hands he is a diminutive but powerfully built man given to dark suits and monogrammed white shirts; he has the aura of a self-confident CEO but his entrance precedes the call to dinner by just a few minutes. Soon everyone is seated in the dining room and the Caesar salad and salmon are being served. Then the dinner dishes are being cleared away and the cake is being presented. Then the assembled lobbyists are singing "Happy Birthday" and the chairman is delivering remarks on the economic and public safety benefits of America's roadways and the dining room is beginning to empty out.
And just like that, the chairman's reelection campaign grosses $150,000.
Bud Shuster and Ann Eppard do this sort of thing fairly often. In fact, they celebrated his 66th birthday in this way not once but three times. And those parties represent a small fraction of the fund-raisers that the Shuster for Congress Committee has held over the last year.
In the landscape of political Washington, congressional staffers who become lobbyists are as common as dirt. So are lobbyists who raise campaign money for incumbents well-positioned to serve their interests. And so, for that matter, are well-positioned incumbents who accept campaign contributions from lobbyists. But Shuster and Eppard have few peers when it comes to working the current campaign finance system. They have so intertwined their official, professional, political and personal lives that it is often hard to discern one kind of activity from another. Their continuing partnership, which includes her serving as a $3,000-a-month consultant to his campaign, represents the system taken to a logical extreme.
"You know this goes on all the time in this town, where lobbyists are very deeply involved in candidates' campaigns," Shuster says. "The most honest thing to do was for my campaign to hire her, pay her $3,000 a month, so everything is aboveboard. So no one can say she's out there, as is common in this town, doing favors for a member without getting paid for it."
Eppard, for her part, says: "If you look at our [campaign] reports, people can understand who is helping, how they are helping, where the money is coming from and where we spend it. If you get down to what is the sublevel in Washington, there are a lot of people who help members get reelected and lobby their committee, and it doesn't show up anywhere."
The fruits of their partnership are considerable.
During the five elections from 1986 to 1994, the campaign raised $2.4 million, even though Shuster had no opponent in either the primary or the general elections. In 1995-96 after he became chairman Shuster for Congress raised $1.2 million, up half a million dollars from the 1994 cycle and 11 times more than his opponent (he won, with 74 percent of the vote). In 1997, the Shuster campaign raised nearly $800,000. Only five other members of the House, including Speaker Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, raised more. And that was not an election year.
Stocking a hefty campaign war chest is common practice among seasoned politicians; it is an effective means of making potential opponents think twice. But the Shuster campaign has proved equally adept at spending, regardless of whether there's an opponent. Much of its spending has been on goods and services that bear only an indirect relation to getting people to vote for the candidate.
During the past six election cycles, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Shuster campaign spent an average of $100,000 a year on hotels, airplane charters, restaurants, food and alcoholic beverages. In 1989-90, according to a study by the Los Angeles Times, the campaign spent $107,000 on meals alone, which was four times more than any other candidate. In 1991-92, he spent five times more for food and travel than he did to get out the vote. His meal tab for the cycle was about $75,000. The noted gourmand Dan Rostenkowski, who was then Ways and Means Committee chairman, had the second-highest meals tab. He spent about $28,000.
"I have an ironclad rule that any time we're involved in anything, if there's a question of whether it's political or congressional, the campaign pays for it so taxpayers don't," Shuster says. "We use dinners as fund-raisers . . . and we do one almost every night. We could spend, say, $20,000 for a fund-raiser dinner to raise $50,000. There's a lot of that . . . We're very big on staying in touch with our supporters."
As Shuster's chief of staff, Eppard was central not only to his fund-raising, but also to the operation of his office, the politicking that kept him in office, and the deal-making that comes with ranking membership on such a heavy-spending committee as Transportation. After she left his staff, she relinquished few of these roles. Meanwhile her lobbying firm, Ann Eppard Associates Ltd., enjoyed robust growth, from billings of $400,000 in 1995 to $1 million in 1996 to an annualized rate of $1.4 million for the first half of last year.
Now they still crisscross the country together, the Transportation chairman and the transportation lobbyist. As they do, they combine the chairman's tours of proposed cloverleafs and bridges with the candidate's fund-raising events with the occasional pursuit of leisure in places like Manhattan, Florida and the West.
This has not escaped the attention of congressional watchdogs.
Kent Cooper, head of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money, says theirs is "the most blatant example" of questionable ties between members of Congress and lobbyists who prosper while raising money for a former boss. "He mixes official and campaign activities to such an extent that the fairness of his official actions is immediately called into question."
John Eichelberger Jr., chairman of the Blair County Board of Commissioners in Shuster's congressional district, is one of the few Republicans openly critical of Shuster's conduct. "He has set himself up with Eppard's guidance as a dynasty," Eichelberger says. "I think there are too many ethical questions for anyone to be comfortable with."
In February 1996, Roll Call, the twice-weekly Capitol Hill newspaper, printed the first report that Shuster was a frequent overnight guest at Eppard's town house. The article said that Shuster was seen leaving her place at 7 o'clock one morning and raised the question of whether his stays broke House rules on gifts to members.
"I'm so repelled," says Eppard. "I'm angry that I worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day, and made decisions that I would have a family and a career, and that somehow all of that got wiped away" by the innuendo and adverse publicity that came with the Roll Call article. The Shuster and Eppard families have been closely allied for more than 25 years, they say. Shuster, his wife, Patricia, and their five children have often stayed overnight at Eppard's home, just as she and her son have stayed with the Shusters on their farm in Everett, Pa. (Her marriage ended in divorce in 1975.) Shuster's son Bob, she says, also stayed at her house that night in February 1996.
For the record, she and Shuster each say their relationship is in no way romantic. "Let's face it," says Jeff Nelligan, Shuster's former Transportation Committee press secretary. "If Ann had a mustache and weighed 350 pounds, nobody would care."
That is not entirely the case. In response to the Roll Call article, the Congressional Accountability Project, which is affiliated with Ralph Nader, filed a complaint with the House ethics committee. Last November, the committee began an investigation into the complaint, an investigation that focuses on their professional relationship. One of the issues is whether Shuster's overnight stays constituted an illegal gratuity of more than $250. Another is whether Eppard broke a House rule barring former staffers from lobbying their bosses for a year.
Official scrutiny has come from another quarter as well: A federal grand jury in Boston has been looking into Shuster's and Eppard's activities as part of a long-running investigation into political corruption related to that city's $11 billion "Big Dig" highway-burial project. Two Boston-area businessmen who were fighting land-taking for the project contributed to the Shuster campaign and paid honorariums to him and Eppard in the early '90s. In addition, they paid consulting fees and made a loan to Eppard's son, Ralph, to help him open a car dealership. Prosecutors have declined to comment on the case, but they apparently want to know more about why the businessmen were so generous.
Shuster and Eppard have vigorously denied any wrongdoing in connection with their fund-raising, their spending of campaign funds, Shuster's official business or Eppard's lobbying business. They say they have adhered scrupulously to congressional and FEC regulations and disclosed their fund-raising and spending fully.
"I don't know how many examples there are of our trying to be meticulous and trying to do the right thing," Shuster says. "We are bitter that we have been so meticulous in trying to do something right, and all this political baloney has been thrown at us."
Right now, there is no telling how either investigation will play out. Defense attorneys and former prosecutors say such conflict-of-interest cases are hard to prove. And in any event, the allegations are rather narrow, involving specific acts and rules or laws. In the case of Shuster and Eppard, it might be more useful to look at what the law does allow.
Congress has been struggling to police campaign fund-raising ever since the Watergate scandal. Recent events the uproar over donors' weekending in the Lincoln Bedroom, or the death of the McCain-Feingold bill suggest that there is still no consensus on the role of money in American politics. Periodically, the system is tweaked, but not overhauled.
The Federal Election Commission, for example, tightened its rules in 1995, barring candidates from using donor money to pay bills that they would incur even if they weren't running for office such as their mortgage or grocery bill. But a close reading of the new regulations shows there is still plenty of room for candidates to travel or dine out regularly on the campaign committee tab, as long as they discuss politics somewhere between cocktails and dessert. That standard leaves a lot of latitude enough to drive a truckload of money through. An examination of Shuster and Eppard's partnership, based on his campaign records, her lobbying disclosure statements and interviews with them and others, shows how it's done.
They met in Washington in 1969. Shuster had been recruited to run a troubled computer terminal company named Datel; Eppard applied for a job as his executive assistant. They both had Pennsylvania roots. Both were smart and energetic. And both were eager to get ahead. When Shuster asked if she'd be willing to take an intelligence test before he decided whether to hire her, Eppard replied, "Sure I'll take one right after you." He offered her the job on the spot.
"There was a vibrancy about him," she recalls. He seemed destined for bigger things. And because her background and work experience as a secretary were relatively modest, she was that much more grateful for the opportunity he was giving her.
Eppard was born in Pittston, a small bedroom community north of Wilkes-Barre in hardscrabble northeastern Pennsylvania, but her mother and stepfather settled in Alexandria, where they worked for the Navy. Eppard says she "made all the mistakes you can make" in early life, including getting married when she was 19 and barely out of high school. A year later, in 1963, she gave birth to her son.
Shuster, 11 years older, had grown up during the Depression in Glassport, a coal-mining town just south of Pittsburgh. His father was a railroad engineer, and his mother was active in the local GOP. One of Shuster's most vivid memories of his youth a memory he recalled years later in a campaign-style monograph titled "Believing in America" was of his mother weeping because she couldn't spare a nickel for him to splurge at Nippsy's Candy Store.
Another memory was of an encounter with his congressman in 1943, when 11-year-old Bud was sent to return a shaving mug that had been kept at his grandfather's barbershop. As he waited for an audience with the congressman, he watched as people flocked to the door in search of help. Marveling at the man's seeming benevolence and power, young Bud vowed that he would be a congressman one day.
First he put himself through school (he holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh, a master's degree in business from Duquesne and a doctorate in business and economics from American University), served in Army counterintelligence in the mid-1950s, and launched his career in the computer business. He was a crackerjack salesman, and eventually rose to a vice presidency in RCA's federal government electronics division in Washington. He traveled widely for his work, but in 1964 he and his wife bought a farm in Everett, about 40 miles south of Altoona.
Datel recruited him in August 1968, and Shuster turned the company around and sold it to a Texas computer concern in March 1969. The sale, which was effected through a complex stock transaction, became the subject of two lawsuits one filed by Shuster and 11 colleagues against the buyer, the other filed against Shuster and his 11 colleagues by one of Datel's major shareholders. A dispute over the value of the stock was at the heart of the allegations, and both suits were settled out of court.
After the sale, he pursued other business ventures and cast about for new worlds to conquer. He also kept a close watch on the political scene in Pennsylvania's 9th Congressional District, which included his farm. In 1972, redistricting led to an open seat. Shuster decided to run for it.
Eppard had no experience in politics, but she was by then a trusted member of his inner circle. Within a week or two of Shuster's decision to run, she left her husband of 10 years, put her 9-year-old son in her mother's temporary care, and headed to Pennsylvania to join the candidate, his family and several other of his longtime Washington business associates. "Shuster Boosters," they called themselves.
The new 9th was a GOP stronghold carved from a rugged and mountainous swath of central Pennsylvania. Local pundits had anointed a veteran Republican state senator as the likely new representative; although Shuster had been a property owner in the district for almost a decade, people viewed him as a Washington outsider. "Nobody thought we could win," he says. "We hit the district like a ton of bricks."
Using his own money to get started, he launched a state-of-the-art campaign, complete with computer models, mass mailings and a well-financed media assault. From sunrise to past dark, Shuster, Eppard and other volunteers traversed the 9th's hills in a red-white-and-blue bus with a bullhorn on the front. Eppard huddled near a space heater at the back of the bus and typed thank-you notes to new Shuster Boosters. A campaign brochure with a photograph of Bud and Pat Shuster and their five well-scrubbed children declared, "Bud Shuster . . . hard-working family man . . . can help bring jobs and a new prosperity to the 9th District."
On primary day, Shuster won with 52 percent of the GOP vote. That fall, he emerged as one of 46 new Republicans elected to the House amid President Nixon's landslide reelection. When Shuster returned to Washington with Eppard, he was elected president of that GOP freshman class. He became a player almost overnight.
His leverage rose as Nixon's fortunes fell. In early 1973, with the Watergate scandal beginning to threaten the administration, Shuster was seen as a bellwether for how the Republican freshmen might vote if the House had to decide whether to impeach the president. The White House courted him vigorously, to the point of inviting him on a moonlit cruise with Nixon aboard the presidential yacht. (When the time came, it would fall to Shuster to inform H.R. Haldeman and other White House officials that Nixon could not count on the freshmen's support.)
Shuster also harbored ambitions to climb the GOP leadership ladder, and quickly emerged as a spokesman for a new, hard-edged fiscal conservatism that was gaining currency among Capitol Hill Republicans. He also had clout by virtue of his committee assignment: Given his choice, he eagerly claimed a seat on the Public Works Committee, the forerunner to Transportation and Infrastructure.
His decision was dictated by geography: His district was isolated by the Appalachians and economically depressed. Railroad-car plants in Altoona and Hollidaysburg had employed thousands of people just after World War II, but that heyday was long gone. The region was largely defined by small towns and communities that suffered from high unemployment and bad roads and bridges and chronic flooding. The year Shuster was elected, flash floods spawned by Hurricane Agnes devastated the state. In the county surrounding Altoona, the waters did $3.2 million worth of damage and forced 300 people out of their homes.
On the Public Works Committee with its control over spending on federal highway and bridge construction Shuster could hope to make good on his campaign pledge to reverse his district's fortunes and literally put Altoona on the interstate highway map. "It was very clear to me that's what I needed to do," he says.
Public Works had a long history of bipartisan pork-barrel spending its operating assumption was, as Shuster says, "There's no such thing as a Democratic or Republican bridge" and he adeptly courted the committee's Democratic leaders. He won over Chairman John Blatnik, a Democrat from the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, by mentioning that he once spent time in Duluth installing a computer system for U.S. Steel and then discussing the finer points of Minnesota and Pennsylvania mining.
"Here was this eager-to-learn, energetic guy anxious to build a personal bridge between Pennsylvania and northeastern Minnesota to establish himself as someone who is practical, realistic and nonideological," says Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, who was Blatnik's top aide at the time and now is the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee. Within two years, Shuster emerged as the ranking Republican on the surface transportation subcommittee, the panel that controlled all highway and bridge spending and the place where most of the deals were cut.
Around the same time in an era when few women held the top jobs in congressional offices he promoted Eppard to be his chief of staff. "I stuck out like a sore thumb," she says.
Shuster's wife rarely was seen in Washington; she remained on the farm in Everett. His partnership with Eppard was unusually visible. "On the Capitol campus, she was with him wherever he went," recalls former congressman Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.). "Senate members often need surgery to separate them from their staff, but House members and their aides usually aren't like that. Eppard was like a Senate staffer."
She did a considerable amount of work, running Shuster's congressional and district offices, handling his media relations, gathering political intelligence, protecting his interests in the Pennsylvania capital, managing his campaigns and raising his money. For years she walked Shuster back and forth between their office and the Capitol whenever he had to vote, and she accompanied him to virtually every political or social event he attended in Washington or in his district. In the latter days of her tenure, when the House had scheduled late-night votes, they passed the time dining by candlelight in his congressional office in the Rayburn Building. Junior staffers were instructed to put her favorite white wine, Glen Ellen, on ice, and they ate their meals of Lean Cuisine and angel-hair pasta on a neatly pressed tablecloth.
"Shuster didn't want to get involved in day-to-day stuff, and let her do the micromanaging," recalls a former aide. ". . . Her job was to make sure that we didn't have any opponents, to see that the seat was safe and to make sure all the ducks were in a row."
With Eppard as his chief of staff, Shuster was free to concentrate on mastering the minutiae of highway appropriations and the fine art of gaining influence. As his influence grew, so did federal funding for projects in his district. Gradually, the influence and the projects began to feed each other.
His first big success came in 1976, when he got $25 million earmarked for a "demonstration project" in his district. In those days, earmarking directing funds to a specific enterprise was quite rare; most highway money was distributed to the states according to a formula. This project was intended to demonstrate a new and faster means of road-building, and it did that: In three years, or three times faster than the average highway project of similar scope in the state, a 4.6-mile bypass was built around Shuster's adopted home town of Everett. It was named the Bud Shuster Bypass.
In 1982, he had the down payment earmarked on a $287 million project to transform narrow U.S. Route 220 into a four-lane highway that would connect Altoona to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the south and Interstate 80 to the north. This 53-mile highway I-99 on your interstate map brought Altoona into the Concrete Age and helped revitalize the economy of the 9th District. Even with 28 more miles to go, it is the most important of Shuster's achievements, and it is named the Bud Shuster Highway.
As the '80s progressed, he supported funding for an airport in Bedford County, about 15 minutes from the Shuster farm. (It is named the Bedford County Airport.) More money followed: $10 million earmarked for a bypass in Loysburg, $50 to $60 million for sewage treatment in Altoona. He also pressed the Army Corps of Engineers to build a hydroelectric plant on a man-made lake used for flood control and recreation near Lewistown.
With the 1991 highway bill, Shuster achieved an apotheosis of sorts: He increased Pennsylvania's take from the federal highway trust funds and had so much money earmarked for so many projects in his district road widenings, pedestrian crossings, new buses, access roads, interchanges and the Bud Shuster Highway that other legislators were getting jealous. When reporters asked Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) which state had received the most in targeted funds, he replied: "The state of Altoona."
Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) was not amused. He complained publicly without naming Shuster that House transportation projects were "little piglets" that had grown into "giant hogs." When he complained about earmarks again in 1994, Shuster threatened to cut off funding for 14 Florida demonstration projects worth more than half a billion dollars. Graham walked across the Capitol grounds to straighten things out. An aide to Graham said the senator did not offer an apology; Shuster's account differed. "When he groveled," he told a Gannett News Service reporter, "I blinked."
As Shuster's power grew, so too did his capacity to raise campaign money. Certainly this was inherent in his position as a player on one of the biggest-spending committees in Congress. But he and Eppard also worked at it, and Eppard was far more aggressive than Shuster. The congressman says that on more than one occasion, a donor handed Eppard a check and she immediately handed it back, saying, "That's not enough." She says this tendency is "part of my Irish personality . . . Shuster's a perfectionist, and he demands perfection from his staff. And certainly I wanted to work hard to exceed that expectation."
Between 1979 and 1990, Eppard routinely contacted a top official of the New Enterprise Stone and Lime Co. the largest highway construction firm in Pennsylvania, and a firm that was working on the Shuster Highway to solicit contributions to Shuster's campaign, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Throughout that period, according to the documents, the company and a subsidiary secretly reimbursed its officers and employees for $80,000 in campaign contributions they made to Shuster's campaign committee, which is a violation of federal election law. The company acknowledged its wrongdoing and agreed to pay $150,000 in civil penalties in 1995 the largest settlement of its kind in FEC history.
"Our business depended on a lot of things that [Shuster] was in favor of or promoted," says Ronald E. Detwiler, a New Enterprise official. Neither Eppard nor Shuster was implicated in the scheme. "I was sick," says Eppard. "I was sick to my stomach" when she read press accounts of the matter. "The first thing I did was call the FEC and ask them what to do."
Overall, contributions to Shuster's campaigns increased sixfold from 1976 to 1992, rising from $88,297 to $556,384. One-third to one-half of those funds came from political action committees primarily those of general contractors and builders. Another major donor was the billboard industry.
Shuster has accepted donations and speaking fees from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America since the late 1970s, when he argued, successfully, that billboard owners were entitled to full restitution for signs taken by eminent domain. During the first six months of 1991, industry executives pumped $90,000 into Shuster's campaign nearly 80 percent of his contributions from individuals at that point while he led a fight against a bill that would have banned new billboards and removed some without compensating the owners. According to Scenic America, an anti-billboard group, the industry contributed a total of $240,000 to Shuster's campaigns between 1990 and 1996 far more than it contributed to any other member of Congress.
With such well-funded campaigns, and with Shuster's district benefiting so much from his earmarkings, opposition to him withered. After 1984 the year he crushed Democrat Nancy Kulp, the actress who had played Miss Jane Hathaway on "The Beverly Hillbillies" he ran unopposed for a decade.
Still, he raised and spent campaign money. The spending was not always on the sort of comforts detailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Los Angeles Times the hotel stays, the airplane charters, the restaurant meals. The campaign also spent money while Shuster was in Washington. In one respect, Eppard says, it's a disadvantage to represent a district so close to Washington, because it's easier for constituents and political allies to visit. And when they do, they have to be attended to, whether that means taking them out to dinner or presenting them with plaques. In any case, the campaign pays.
Shuster and Eppard were also generous to congressional staffers, frequently sending out for Mexican food and Popeye's fried chicken or treating them to meals away from the office or on business trips to the district all of which were charged to the campaign. Shuster and Eppard also dipped into the campaign coffers to pay for groceries at the Giant and for dinners at the Hyatt Regency's Capitol View Club, the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington and other local restaurants.
Since 1991, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's analysis, the Shuster campaign has spent $20,000 at the Sutton Place Gourmet in Alexandria and another $20,000 at the Alexandria Pastry Shop and Cafe. On a single day July 10, 1991 the campaign reported expenses of $162 at Sutton Place Gourmet, $299 at Red Hot & Blue in Arlington and $254 at the Alexandria Pastry Shop. At other times, the campaign has reported expenses of $640 at the Tortilla Coast restaurant in Washington, $46.25 at Clyde's in Vienna and $5.99 at the Everett Foodliner, a supermarket in Shuster's home town. In 1995, the campaign spent $286 for dry cleaning at the Presto Valet in Alexandria.
To suggestions that she and Shuster were essentially living off the campaign, Eppard says, "I'm telling you that's not the case. I'm comfortable with how the money is spent. I'm not going to change it."
While she was working for Shuster, Eppard had relatively little money of her own. As a single parent whose annual congressional salary ranged from $67,000 to $110,000 over the past decade, Eppard says, she borrowed heavily from her government retirement fund to pay for her son's college education. In 1995, she told a reporter, "I'm a woman with five Visa cards."
Early in the 1994 campaign season, she sounded out friends, colleagues, lobbyists and relatives about the wisdom of retiring from her congressional job and setting up shop as a lobbyist. During her 21 years on the Hill, Eppard had spent a lot of time around lobbyists and industry executives who were earning five or 10 times as much as she was. "There were people that I had known for years that said, `Hey, if you're going to set up a company, let us hire you.' I didn't do anything differently than anyone else."
That year, the Republicans had high hopes of wresting control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. If they did, Shuster would be in line for a committee chairmanship. But as Eppard approached her career decision that summer, there was no telling how the election would turn out that November.
With Shuster's blessing, Eppard filed her retirement papers September 30 and left his staff in November, right after the election, and just before Shuster became "Mr. Chairman."
That December, Shuster attended an event he had avoided for years. The Pennsylvania Society's annual dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York is an extravagant ritual that dates to the heyday of the Carnegie and Mellon families; it draws large numbers of businessmen and politicians. It is the kind of oversize gala that makes Shuster a little uncomfortable.
But now that he was going to be the chairman, he went. That weekend, Shuster and his entourage incurred bills of $2,899 for rooms at the Waldorf, $682 for meals at the Plaza Hotel and nearly $300 for limousine service. The Shuster campaign paid them all.
The Republican takeover of Congress was good for Bud Shuster in two ways. Not only did he become chairman of his committee, but his committee's jurisdiction also grew.
Public Works traditionally had direct control over spending for highways and bridges. But when the new House leadership reorganized the committees, this one became Transportation and Infrastructure and added railroads and shipping to its portfolio.
In addition, the highway and mass transit law was due to expire, and the new committee would have primary responsibility for rewriting it. The six-year, $218 billion reauthorization bill now working its way through the legislative process is the result of the committee's efforts.
It was a hot committee. Demand for membership was so intense that Shuster and the House leaders expanded it from 64 to 76. The second-largest committees in Congress, Appropriations and Banking, have 60 members each.
As chairman, Shuster immediately plunged into a pet project, which was to try to have the federal highway trust funds taken off-budget, or separated from the main federal budget. He wanted their proceeds billions of dollars annually reserved strictly for what he perceived to be the nation's critical transportation needs.
He also appreciated what his chairmanship would do for his campaign fund-raising. In fact, he started telling a joke about it, a joke he still sometimes tells: Man walks into a pet shop, asks the owner how much for a gorgeous bird, the owner says $15,000, because the bird sings arias. Man points to another gorgeous bird, owner says $20,000, because that one sings arias and quotes from the Bible, too. Man points to a scrawny bird over in the corner, owner says $45,000.
Can he sing arias and quote the Bible? the man asks.
No, says the owner, but the others call him "Mr. Chairman."
"If you're a transportation interest, what better chairman could you have?" says Jack Schenendorf, Shuster's top aide on the Transportation Committee. "Look at how he fights for transportation interests, whether local communities or the construction industry. How could you have asked for a better advocate for transportation? If they don't contribute to him, who would they be contributing to?"
Contribute they have: The 1995-96 election cycle was the one in which the campaign raised $1.2 million. (In 1996, Eppard also helped raise $100,000 for Bob Shuster's unsuccessful run for the House in another Pennsylvania district.)
With more money came more spending. When Shuster returned to the Pennsylvania Society dinner in New York in 1995, his party of five incurred $11,180 in expenses, including a $9,376 tab at the Intercontinental Hotel and $708 for dinner at Sardi's. He also spent $540 to take supporters to "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon," Eppard says. All told, by the time the 1995-96 cycle was over, the campaign had spent everything it had raised. To begin fund-raising for the current cycle, Shuster for Congress actually borrowed $60,000.
Eppard, in these years, was establishing her lobbying firm. In less time than it took to hang her shingle, she signed up the Outdoor Advertising Association, Amtrak and Conrail as clients. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission soon followed, as did the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. In December 1994, the month after she left Shuster's staff, Eppard bought a waterfront town house in Alexandria for $823,000. She made the down payment of $330,000, she says, by dipping into her lump-sum retirement benefits and borrowing from relatives.
At the time, she was bound by the congressional ban on former aides' lobbying their former bosses or committees for a year after they depart, and she insists that she was careful not to try to influence Shuster's decision-making in any way for that first year.
At the same time, she went on his campaign payroll as a $3,000-a-month consultant. She headed a committee that raised an estimated $40,000 for a portrait of the new Transportation chairman, to hang with the portraits of former chairmen in the committee chambers. She still dined out frequently with him, either alone or with constituents and potential donors. She still put him up occasionally. She still raised his campaign money.
Even with the one-year prohibition, Eppard built her client list. And after the prohibition expired, her billings grew robustly, to $700,000 in the first half of last year. This growth was so quick that it startled several of her lobbying peers, some of whom had been in the business a lot longer without nearly as much to show for it. Early last year, Eppard bought a $1.4 million town house in the same Alexandria complex, even before selling her $823,000 town house. For several months, she carried mortgages totaling $1.6 million. "It was tough," she says. "It was really tough."
As Shuster and Eppard expanded their respective domains, there were new perks. More often than before, the chairman was flying chartered planes home to the Bedford County Airport. In 1994, for example, Shuster for Congress paid $58,000 for such flights to Bun Air Corp., the main user of the airport. In 1996, the campaign paid Bun Air $104,000.
Occasionally, Shuster and Eppard were able to charter corporate jets for the price of a first-class commercial ticket. The jets were from companies with interests before the committee, and sometimes those companies were also Eppard clients, such as Federal Express and Union Pacific.
As chairman, Shuster did a lot of traveling communities all across the country asked him to come take a look at their proposed cloverleaf or bridge or light rail project. As his campaign consultant, Eppard almost always went with him. The chairman was paying for these trips with his campaign funds, because they coincided with his fund-raising events.
This required no great feat of scheduling. As all those transportation-minded communities competed for the chairman's attention, they could not resort to the time-honored practice of paying him fat speaking fees, because Congress banned it in 1991. After the ban, hosting a fund-raiser became the substitute of choice. The game is the same; only the rules have changed. This is how it is played now:
"People call and say they'd like to do a fund-raiser for the congressman," says Eppard. "And then they will say, `Is it possible he will have some time to look at something?' He doesn't play golf, he doesn't play tennis. If he's there, sure." He'll visit. In September 1996, for example, Eppard and Shuster flew to Portland, Ore., for a fund-raiser that coincided with a tour of the city's proposed light rail project. Eppard was quoted in the Portland Oregonian as saying that Shuster agreed to make the trip only after local officials agreed to meet his fund-raising "criteria." One of those criteria, she said, was that Shuster receive more in campaign contributions than he spent to make the trip. The campaign grossed about $15,000 on the visit.
The next day, they toured highway projects in Salt Lake City site of the 2002 Winter Olympics and Provo, Utah. They also held fund-raisers in both places, grossing about $15,000 total. For the latter event, Shuster helicoptered in to the Sundance ski resort.
From 1995 to 1997, they made three trips to Texas to visit a proposed corridor for a new interstate running north from the border towns of Harlingen and McAllen to Corpus Christi and Houston. There were fund-raising events on all three trips, grossing a total of more than $100,000.
A few months after those visits, the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce and the Port of Corpus Christi hired Eppard as a lobbyist. Harlingen is paying her $10,000 a month; she hasn't yet filed a lobbying report on Corpus, a new client. She says she landed both clients independently of her tours with the chairman. "I won't talk about lobbying at a Shuster event," she says.
Last June, it was Miami: They attended a briefing on the city's plans for an intermodal port, and they went to a luncheon fund-raiser sponsored by a cruise ship lobbyist who had hired Eppard on another project. They also had a fund-raising dinner. Most of the $1,642 dinner tab for about a dozen was picked up by the lobbyist for ICF Kaiser International, which was doing the environmental engineering on the port project. On the day, they grossed about $25,000.
"He's not the only one who does it," says Eppard, and she is right. In the same month that Shuster held his third 66th birthday party, for example, Rep. Oberstar, Transportation's ranking Democrat, visited Boston to meet with a New England economic development group, the chamber of commerce, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and a business group concerned about the Big Dig. He also grossed $7,100 at a fund-raiser hosted by lobbyist Tom O'Neill, the son of the late Democratic House speaker.
To the suggestion that these road shows have obliterated the distinctions between their supposedly separate professional lives, or between Shuster's official and political lives, he and Eppard cite congressional rules and FEC regulations: If they're out raising funds, they say, they pay for the trips with campaign money. If they're spending campaign money, they make the requisite disclosures. That's what the system requires. And because they are playing by the rules, they say, they see no reason to change the way they go about their businesses.
Back in Altoona, the voters don't seem much bothered by the investigations. The chairman has, after all, done so much for his district. In November, they celebrated his 66th birthday at a fund-raiser that grossed $110,000. In February, they did the same thing in Lewistown. That affair grossed $60,000, Eppard says, or double the figure for an event two years ago. This month, after Congress returns from its recess, another fund-raiser in State College, Pa., will mark Shuster's 25 years of service.
And Eppard says the chairman has a lot of requests to visit other members' districts, too. The $218 billion highway bill is still on the table. Its final form its ultimate distribution of wealth won't be settled until later this spring.
Eric Pianin and Charles R. Babcock are reporters on The Post's National and Investigative staffs, respectively. Post reporters Wendy Melillo and Brooke Masters and researchers Nathan Abse, Mary Lou White and Ben White contributed to this article.
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